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Is Last Minute, Spontaneous Travel Now a Thing of the Past? Yes....And No

It’s been a good several years since the airlines offered regular last-minute deals. According to a study of 180 million ticket sales by the Airline Reporting Corporation (the middleman that handles transactions between the airlines and thousands of travel agencies) the early birds are doing far better than those who delay. According to the ARC’s study, bookings 57 days in advance garner the lowest fares for North American travel, statistically speaking. For international travel, those who booked a whopping 171 before their trips snag the lowest fares. (And if you’re interested, booking on a Sunday will often yield savings of 19% over booking on a weekday).  

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If you scan the information superhighway of Twitter, the last-minute airfare deals that were a staple a few years ago, have mostly disappeared. (Point in case: #JetBlueCheeps which used to exclusively post air deals for the coming weekend is currently peddling travel for the summer of 2015, and discounts in January).

So spontaneous jet trips seem to be out, for now, but what about other forms of travel? Can you get the best deals by waiting?  It all depends on the mode of travel.

Take hotels. Last week, Marriott and Hilton announced that they would be instituting cancellation fees in 2015 (of the cost of one nights stays) for those who fail to cancel their reservation by 11:59pm local time, the night before travel. So gone are the days, at those two massive chains (and frankly, at many others), of travelers being able to change their plans, without worry, with just a call up until 6pm on the day of the reservation.
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But that doesn’t mean that travelers who wait on booking a hotel will lose the price race. In fact, the opposite is often true. Travel insiders, like the volunteers who run the website BiddingforTravel.com and BetterBidding.com, two sites which track prices on such “blind bidding” giants as Priceline.com and Hotwire.com, note that reservations made the week of travel often garner the lowest rates. And there are two apps out there TravelTonight and Priceline’s Negotiator App, that allow truly spontaneous cheap travel in the form of discounts of up to 70% off the rate you’ll see everywhere else for a hotel room. (Case in point: I booked a room at the lovely Lafayette Hotel in San Diego for $70 through HotelTonight on a day when every other website was showing the lowest price as being $139). Booking on the morning of travel takes courage, no doubt, but hey, that’s what spontaneous travel is about, right?
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Cruising, too, is an area where last-minute discounts can be had….for now. In late October, Royal Caribbean’s Chief Executive Officer Richard Fain said, in an earnings call with analysts, that it would be scuttling last minute discounts in 2015. This promise (or threat, depending on your point of view), was based on RCL’s strategy of better managing bookings by moving a number of its ships from the Caribbean to Asia. The thinking is that Asia is both a growing market (so more customers to fill beds) and an area in which customers traditionally have planned their travels farther in advance than North Americans currently do.

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No word yet on whether the other cruise lines will follow Royal Caribbean’s lead, but I’d be surprised if they can. And if you look at most any cruise discount site today you’ll find that last minute deals are the norm and frankly, quite spectacular. A quick tour of VacationsToGo.com’s “90 Day Ticker” shows cruises in all parts of the globe discounted by up to 80% off the brochure rate. These include 5-night December sailings to the Bahamas aboard Carnival for $129 and 7-night December jaunts to the Caribbean onHolland America for $249.

And what about car rentals, bus fares and rail tickets? Those will vary. In general, car rental rates fall closer to the day of travel, but jump up dramatically on the day of. The deepest discounts for bus and rail have been for advance purchase in the last twelve months, but that could certainly change.
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Bottom line: hit the road if you need a last-minute vacation. Savvy travelers, those who search before buying, can usually find deals on some elements of their vacations, discounts that are so stellar they off-set the cost of having to pay more for other elements.

(Photo by MrHayata/flickr)

 

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